At Town Hall, A Turning Point?

Specter's Performance May Be Factor, For Good or Ill, in His Reelection Bid

Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) faced a barrage of sometimes hostile questions about health care from wary voters at a town meeting Tuesday in Lebanon, Pa. Video by AP
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 2009

The back-and-forth between Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter and several attendees of a town hall meeting in Lebanon, Pa., this week may become the lasting political symbol of the summer of 2009: a politician and his constituents standing inches away from one another, angrily debating the merits (or lack thereof) of President Obama's health-care reform plan.

The exchange between Specter and one man -- broadcast throughout the day on cable television -- culminated with the senator asking whether the man would like to leave the meeting and the man responding, to applause from some in the crowd: "One day God's going to stand before you, and he's going to judge you and the rest of your damned cronies up on the Hill."

Close observers of Pennsylvania politics agreed that the showdown Tuesday in Lebanon marked a possible turning point in what has been a rocky period for Specter, who switched from the Republican Party to the Democrats this spring in advance of his bid for a sixth term in 2010.

But whether the town hall was a positive development for Specter or a sign of the electoral trouble he faces both in a primary against Rep. Joe Sestak (D) and in a potential general election fight against former congressman Pat Toomey (R) is a matter of significant debate.

Saul Shorr, a Philadelphia-based Democratic media consultant, said the town hall confrontation worked to Specter's advantage, affording him the opportunity to defend the president's plan in a high-profile public setting. "The town halls are the best thing that has happened to him," Shorr said. "It makes him a Democrat."

Specter's campaign manager, Chris Nicholas, echoed that sentiment, noting that in the wake of the Lebanon event the senator has received "loads of positive feedback from Democratic leaders for the way [he] has conducted himself." Nicholas added that Specter was greeted with a standing ovation in a meeting with Perry County Democratic officials on Wednesday, many of whom referenced his performance in Lebanon as a rallying point.

One senior Republican consultant who has worked extensively in the state disagreed. Calling the intensity of emotion against Specter "jaw-dropping," the source, who spoke candidly on the condition of anonymity, predicted that the confluence of anger regarding the health-care bill, irritation about Specter's party switch and the senator's "smarter than you" attitude will lead to "either a Sestak primary win or a Toomey general election victory."

National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Amber Wilkerson said, "There is a palpable unrest nationwide surrounding the Democrats' plans to impose a government takeover of Americans' health-care plans, and Senator Specter witnessed his constituents' concerns first hand in Lebanon this week."

Specter, for his part, has refused to back down from the aggressive stance he adopted during the town hall, telling CBS's "Early Show" on Wednesday that the loud voices of dissent at the meetings are not representative of the attitude of the country as a whole.

For Specter, the intense national spotlight over health care is nothing new. His party switch in April stunned the political world, and his acknowledgment that the decision was motivated in large part by the belief that he could not beat Toomey in a Republican primary was equally astonishing for its realpolitik frankness.

While Specter has been bolstered by endorsements from Obama as well as from leading Pennsylvania officials, including Gov. Edward G. Rendell and Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., there remains considerable skepticism toward him among rank-and-file Democrats -- particularly union members who are still smarting over Specter's opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act this year when he was still a Republican.

Polling shows that while Specter has a healthy lead over Sestak at the moment, the incumbent's support is somewhat shaky. A mid-July Quinnipiac University poll showed Specter leading Sestak 55 percent to 23 percent, but more voters (49 percent) said the incumbent did not deserve another term than said he should be reelected (40 percent).

Sestak is seeking to capitalize on the distrust toward Specter among Democratic loyalists, making the case that the incumbent's party switch was about politics, not principles. The central question in the primary, Sestak said in a recent interview, is: "What kind of leadership do you want for the future?"

One Democratic consultant not affiliated with either candidate said Sestak's silence regarding Specter's raucous town hall could undermine that argument.

"I think Sestak could've shown he is putting party ahead of politics by somehow coming to Specter's defense," said the source, who has worked extensively in the state. "It seemed like a good opportunity to reinforce the Sestak message that he's for party and principle ahead of personal gain."

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